Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - When Life Gives You O.J.

Author: Erica Perl
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (June 14, 2011)
Audience: Ages 8 to 11 years old
Source:  Personal Copy
Realistic Fiction * Family Realtionships * Middle Grade

Description from GoodReads:

For years, 10-year-old Zelly Fried has tried to convince her parents to let her have a dog. After all, practically everyone in Vermont owns a dog, and it sure could go a long way helping Zelly fit in since moving there from Brooklyn. But when her eccentric grandfather Ace hatches a ridiculous plan involving a "practice dog" named OJ, Zelly's not so sure how far she's willing to go to win a dog of her own. Is Ace's plan so crazy it just might work . . . or is it just plain crazy?

Erica S. Perl weaves an affectionate and hilarious tale that captures the enduring bond between grandparents and grandchildren.  Even when they're driving each other nuts.

If anyone tells you that middle grade fiction is just silly or filled with a lot of fluff, hand them a copy of When Life Gives You O.J. by Erica Perl.  Prior to reading this book, I was most familiar with Perl's picture books, especially her Chicken Butt series.  It doesn't take much to know that if you put chicken & butt in the same title you will likely get something hysterical.  So, though I didn't know much about When Life Gives You OJ, one look at the title and cover gave me the idea that maybe I was in for more of Perl's humor.  And humor, I did get.  But I got much, much more than humor.   

Zelly is a 10 year old transplant to Vermont.  Due to life circumstances, Zelly and her family have moved from Brooklyn to Vermont to share a home with her grandfather, Ace.  Right from the beginning, you get to meet Zelly's eccentric grandfather who prefers to be called Ace and who chooses to call Zelly - Kid.  From a crazy note secured to an empty OJ container with a rubber band, you discover something about Ace and Zelly.  Ace knows that Zelly wants a dog more than anything.  His plan - have Zelly show that she is ready for the responsibility of taking care of a dog by practicing on a "practice dog" which just happens to be in the shape of a plastic orange juice jug.  Will the plan work or will Zelly just die of utter embarrassment?  

Just this part of the story alone, would have made for a hilarious read.  However, this really isn't a dog book.  Behind this quirky, fun cover, Perl has disguised this amazingly rich and insightful story about family dynamics and a relationship between a child and a grandparent.  There is definitely an aspect of humor to Perl's story, but if that is all you walk away with, then you haven't really read the book.

Right from the beginning, I appreciated that Perl worked to capture the awkwardness of leaving everything behind for a new and radically different place.  (Just to note - It is true - you could have lived your entire life in Vermont but if you weren't born there you aren't a native.)  This aspect of childhood (moving and fitting in) is one that many children can relate to and Perl connects with her readers with both humor and insight.  The struggle with making friends, dealing with the class bully, having a friend go away to camp while you stay behind, the arrival of another new-comer (this time a boy) are all significant milestones in the development of the majority of school-age children.  

On top of this, there are all kind of family dynamics at play that most children face at some point in their life.  What happens after the loss of one grandparent (who just happened to be your favorite)? Or what insight do you learn about your own parent when you learn about her own relationship with her father? 

In some ways, there are truly deep concepts going on in this small book which makes it powerful in its own way and one that should be shared with as many children as possible.  When I finished reading Perl's book, I immediately knew that this would be on my read-aloud list for the 2011-2012 school year and would be one of the book I recommend widely.  

If you haven't heard of When Life Gives You OJ, definitely check it out. It just may end up on one of your lists.  

Check out the official book trailer for When Life Gives You O.J.:

For more information about Erica Perl, check out her website: 

You can find her on twitter: @ericaperl 

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